Thursday, December 10, 2009

War Is Over If You Want It

"...I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

"I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.' I still believe that We Shall overcome!"
--The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago - 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

"I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower."

--President Barack Obama in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize today

"War, huh
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

"War, it ain't nothin' but a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker, oh

"Peace, love and understanding, tell me
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight to keep our own freedom
But Lord knows there's gotta be a better way"

--Edwin Starr/Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong song lyrics, 1970

I give credit to President Obama for an attempt to reconcile his respect for the civil rights tradition while trying to justify his role as commander in chief of the largest military machine the world has ever known: he presented a thoughtful argument for the idea of a just war, for well-behaved war, for nice war with rules and fairness. His speech today has provoked me to read some other speeches, and to assess what I believe. I'd certainly rather hear Obama's reasoned argument than those base and empty appeals to "freedom" a la Reagan or Bush. If I wanted to hear that war is peace or freedom is slavery I know which bookshelf to find Orwell on. Obama is a good speaker if not, here, a fiery one, and I'm glad to be pushed to affirm my own views.

I am proud that my father and his paternal line were peaceful people who ran from war, who would uplift their lives and families and give up their homes rather than serve in the military. They did this over and over again when they fled Germany in the 1700s and when they fled Russia in the early years of the last century and when my father did it before I was born in the 1950s. But I'm also proud of my father's maternal line; that my great great grandfather donned that blue uniform to defeat the racist Confederacy.

I am deeply persuaded by Dr. King's profound notion that the long and difficult path of non-violence was the way to respond to the violence of racism in such a way as to transform and transcend a social relationship not just suppress or repress it. But I am also deeply persuaded by the righteousness of generations of anti-colonial revolutionaries who were drawn to armed struggle in their path of liberation.

These are contradictions, and I think it was courageous of Obama to acknowledge that fundamental contest of justice and violence. But here's another contradiction: I think that U.S. military intervention anywhere in the world--with the debatable exception of the Second World War--is always and fundamentally wrong. And I think it was deeply disingenous of Obama to weave so slender a thread around the real story of the misery inflicted by the U.S. on so many nations and peoples around the world in pursuit of its own self-righteous agenda.

As someone living in New York City during the events of September 11, 2001, I could easily have been one of the people the Al-Qaeda hijackers were trying to kill. I think that the religious fundamentalists behind those criminal attacks needed to be brought to justice; not because they dared threaten the American way of life but because they chose to blame and kill a bunch of innocent people. In that sense I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the American destruction of the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 if it's viewed as a mission to arrest criminals.

But it is the history of the crucible of those religious fundamentalists--Afghanistan--that shows the deadly chain reaction that belief in "a just war" causes. The "Just War" of the Soviets aiding the secular Afghan revolution; the "Just War" of the Mujahedeen expelling the foreign invaders; the "Just War" of the Taliban fighting the corrupt tribal Mujahedeen militias; the "Just War" of the US against the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda guests, and now, from someone else's perspective, the "Just War" of the Taliban again to expell new foreign invaders: where do these "Just Wars" end? How many regular people is it okay to kill to steer the wheels of history in a different direction?

Here's the thing. As long as people like Obama rationalize their seduction by war, all those good intentions mean nothing because in the end it comes down to parents on the wrong side of some arbitrary line on a map made to scream and weep inconsolably over the bloodied bodies of their children.

It took me many years to understand it, but John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous Christmas Greeting is so deeply profound:

"WAR IS OVER! if you want it."

As long as the leaders of this world--both the ones in whom we've placed our aspirations for good, like Obama, and the ones we feared as pure corrupt evil, like Bush--look for the "moral justifications" in their use of bombs and tanks and drones and missiles and guns and mines and cluster bombs, then we, the regular people, will suffer. This world of violence is our choice...unless we stop wanting it; unless we're brave enough to listen to the likes of Dr. King without adding that terrible soul-corrupting word "but."

I'd like to choose peace.

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